Metro Transit workers authorize strike after rejecting “final offer” on one-year contract

    Photo courtesy of Metro Transit.

    Metro Transit bus drivers, light rail operators, mechanics and cleaners voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike on Wednesday after workers rejected the year-long contract proposed by the Metropolitan Council, which operates the transit service.

    The vote came after the Metropolitan Council presented workers with a “final offer” in August, forcing the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 to bring it before their 2,350 members. Workers rejected the offer and instead voted with 94% approval to give the union the power to call a strike should negotiations continue to flounder. No strike has been scheduled yet.

    “They put a crappy offer on the table and walked away,” ATU Local 1005 President Ryan Timlin said in a statement. “We put our lives and the lives of our families at risk every day to keep these buses and trains moving in the middle of a global pandemic … Where is the Met Council? They’re hiding out on Zoom, refusing to negotiate.”

    Metro Transit’s budget has also been hit hard by the pandemic, as ridership has plummeted. The transit agency expects ridership will decline about 60% from 2019 and sink even lower in 2021, contributing to a $64.5 million budget shortfall over two years.

    Workers wanted a 2.5% increase in wages as well as a hazard pay increase of $3 per hour for the duration of the pandemic, Timlin said.

    A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Council says it proposed a $3.6 million contract that would have given workers a one-time bonus averaging $1,500, which represents a 2.5% increase in wages for the average bus and rail operators. Timlin called that figure highly deceiving, because it combines a $825 one-time bonus for full-time workers with hazard pay for an eight-week period during the beginning of the pandemic.

    Bus and light rail operators are among the most vulnerable essential workers during the pandemic. More than 70 of ATU Local 1005’s members have become sick with COVID-19. In August, the union filed a complaint against Metro Transit for failing to follow proper safety protocols at a light rail maintenance facility.

    Given the uncertainty around the pandemic, the union and Metro Transit agreed to negotiate a contract for just the next year instead of a three-year contract, as is typical.

    The transit agency did receive a lifeline of $214 million in federal COVID-19relief funding; the union says it played a key role helping secure the money.

    But that aid is not enough to offset the decline in revenue from passenger fares and lower tax receipts. Most of the federal funding went to staff salaries and benefits, which make up more than 70% of operating costs for buses and light rail. Metro Transit also used the funds to increase bus cleaning, provide personal protective equipment to workers and install “COVID shields” on buses.

    The two sides have not yet scheduled a time to resume negotiations.

    Max Nesterak
    Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.